Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) announced on September 4 that she would withdraw the controversial extradition bill, except it was too late.

The months-long demonstrations in Hong Kong have been met by increasing police brutality and even gang violence against protesters. Anti-extradition protests turned into a full-fledged pro-democracy movement, encompassing dissatisfactions of the population that go far beyond the bill that was repealed.

Protesters in Hong Kong are demanding higher autonomy for the territory in a similar way to other pro-democracy protests that have emerged since the Arab Spring in the early 2010s.

The Arab Spring marked a before and an after in world politics and presented the world with new forms of mobilization for democracy: they are often decentralized and horizontal, organized without the help of trade unions, political parties or non-profits. Traditional social organizations have lost their command as individuals rely on the Internet to facilitate an autonomous mobilization.

Mideast Egypt Tunisia Elections

Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

A Tunisian man shows his ink-stained finger in front of a Tunisian flag after voting for the country's parliamentary elections outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, October 25, 2014

The Arab Spring and Its Continuity

In the early 2010s, the protests in Tunisia spread to other countries (like Egypt, Syria, and Libya) in North Africa and the Middle East, triggering state-sponsored violence or even civil wars.

In the wake of the Arab Spring came the 15-M Movement in Spain, the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States, the 2011 England Riots, and the 2013 June protests in Brazil. These protests shared a similar characteristic, that is, decentralization. Even if the demonstrations were called by social organizations, the leaderless character of these protests should be highlighted. Protesters mostly used social media to organize their movement in real-time and were able to rally millions to walk out on the streets.

These protests were also marked by the immense discontent among young people against the social conditions in their countries. They demanded government transparency, better socio-economic policies, equal opportunities, and many more.

The effects and the continuity of such protests can be felt even today, such as South Korea’s 2016 Candlelight Revolution demanding the resignation of President Park Geun-hye (朴槿惠) for corruption-related crimes. Millions of South Koreans protested out of their anger against political establishments and social inequality. Both students and the elderly voiced their demands for a better future, a country of equal opportunity. During the revolution, at least three people died and dozens injured in clashes with the police.

The global outcry for democracy, however, was met with a political backlash that indicated the deterioration of democratic values around the world.


Photo Credit: Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters / TPG Images

A woman attends a protest denouncing President Park Geun-hye over a recent influence-peddling scandal in central Seoul, South Korea, October 27, 2016.

The Big Shift to Populism and Erosion of Democratic Values

The Brexit referendum, the victories of populist presidential candidates like Donald Trump in 2016 and Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, as well as the growth of extremism in Europe, happened almost as a response to the great mobilizations before.

In the early 2010s, the world was witnessing a wave of pro-democracy protests all over the world, but it is now experiencing a significant regression of democracy and freedoms instead.

The England Riots gave way for the return of anti-immigration and anti-Europe conservatism. Cries for a more inclusive and socially responsible societal model have instead been replaced by nativist figures like Trump and Bolsonaro, who represent a perverse and identitarian logic of us against the other, of natives against immigrants, of the rural versus the city. Undemocratic phenomena have swallowed the wave of democracy.

Many of the abovementioned pro-democracy movements focused on liberal agendas such as advancing LGBT rights and bettering representation of ethnic minorities, leading to a backlash that was dubbed as “the politics of resentment” by Francis Fukuyama in his new book Identity.

Fukuyama wrote that populist leaders mobilize followers “around the perception that [their] dignity had been affronted, disparaged, or otherwise disregarded.” In other words, groups who once held power (or so they thought) are now manipulated into feeling excluded. For instance, the promise of making America great again is meant to “empower” populations that feel neglected or even attacked by the liberal movements.

Most Arab countries who protested during the Arab Spring ended up being seized by authoritarian regimes like Iraq, or by military conflicts that have escalated to civil wars like Syria, Yemen, and Libya. The democratic movements that have followed the Arab Spring were often hijacked by an illiberal, often xenophobic and conservative agenda.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Smoke rises over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014.

Hong Kong Protests Signify the Return of Real Democracy

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong can be understood as a resumption of the spirit of the Arab Spring, with millions taking to the streets to demand freedom and democracy, as well as human rights protection and social justice.

Relying on messaging apps and social media, Hongkongers have organized massive protests, spontaneous occupations, and even rescue action to save protesters who were trapped near the airport.


Photo Credit: Ring Yu / HK01 via AP / TPG Images

A protester throws a tear gas canister which was fired by riot police during a protest in Hong Kong, Sunday, July 28, 2019.

The Hong Kong protests, like the other democratic movements at the beginning of the decade, had started with mostly peaceful marches but were met with police brutality. To some extent, police violence has brought international attention to the movement than the protesters otherwise would have.

The restless pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has alerted the world of how authoritarian regimes can corrode an economically and culturally vibrant society. The struggle of Hongkongers has sent a resounding warning to Taiwan, and with further persistence, it might be the spark for a new decade of democratic waves across the globe.

READ NEXT: Why Hong Kong Should Keep Defending Its Democracy

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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